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3 March 2014

The benefit sanctions regime needs to be tougher but more compassionate

We need an end to unfair sanctions and new penalties for those who consistently break the rules.

By Nick Faith

People are much less sympathetic to the unemployed and the role of government in providing support to them than they were three decades ago. This was one of the headline findings from last year’s British Social Attitudes survey. The research pointed to the fact that 81 per cent of the public felt that large numbers of people were falsely claiming benefits. Viewed through the distorted lens of the national media, you can hardly blame people for assuming that the majority of people on out-of-work benefits were fiddling the system.

The reality is very different. Not everyone claiming benefits is Frank Gallagher from Shameless. The majority of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) are desperate to find work. They spend their time attending job centre interviews, updating their CVs, applying for positions, trying everything possible to earn their own wage. In return for meeting this set of conditions, the state pays people over the age of 25 a weekly sum of £71.70 a week.

There are, however, a significant minority who are physically and mentally able to work but who are not doing all they can to find a job. They are rightly punished. The welfare system is a safety net, not a way of life. Where there is abuse, the government must have a sharp set of teeth to enforce the rules. It is important to have a fair system for both people looking for work and people who are paying for the welfare system through their hard earned taxes.

This is where sanctions come in. They are financial penalties handed out to people who have not been playing by the rules. In an ideal world, sanctions would be unnecessary as claimants would always comply with the conditions of their benefit receipt. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The financial penalties vary depending on how many times an individual breaks the rules. For example, failing to attend a job centre interview for the first time will result in four weeks of lost benefits. On the face of it this seems fair.  However, a paper published today by Policy Exchange, Smarter Sanctions, reveals that 68,000 people a year are unfairly sanctioned. These mistakes could have been down to administrative errors or other factors such as having to rush a poorly child to hospital and as a result missing an appointment. Unless an individual has friends or family who they can turn to for money, many people will end up relying on desperate measures such as food banks, crisis loans or payday lenders.  

This is where a benefit card could improve the system. Under our proposals, people who break the rules for the first time – either on purpose or by mistake – would be issued with a “top up” style card credited with their weekly benefit. Instead of an initial financial penalty, claimants would in effect be shown a “yellow card”. Benefits would be accessed via this card for a maximum of eight weeks. If the claimant continued to break the rules, the card and benefits would be taken away. This system would provide a safety net, mitigating hardship whilst a sanction is appealed.

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At the same time, the paper proposes tougher penalties for people who are consistently breaking the rules. Between October 2012 and September 2013, there were 30,000 claimants on their third sanction or more. In order for the system to be seen as acting fairly, repeat offenders should receive an appropriate punishment. In our view that would mean withdrawing benefits for a longer period of time – from 13 weeks under the existing model to 26 weeks. Tough love.

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We Brits should be very proud of the principles behind the welfare state – it is the mark of a civilised nation to look after people who cannot look after themselves or who need support when they fall on hard times. However, it is just as important that people who can work, do all they can to find a job. At a time when people up and down the country are feeling the pinch, it is even more important that the government ensures that the system is not being fiddled. It is also the mark of a responsible government not to punish people for mistakes they didn’t make. A more compassionate but tougher sanction regime is integral to the future of the welfare system.

Nick Faith is Director of Communications at Policy Exchange